I’m by no means a novice to the shul shopping experience. After all, this is my fourth attempt to complete the conversion process. I’ve gotten used to the experience by now: careful elimination, nervous composition, and finally anxious mutual inspection.
The liberal Rabbi closest to me in my college years outright refused to do conversions: he was simply too busy in a growing congregation. The adamant declaration stung, but it was in his Little Rock congregation that my love for the liturgy was first nourished.
My choice to familiarize myself with Houston’s Reform rabbis in 2007 was not so much an affirmative decision in Reform’s favor so much as a rejection of the Conservative movement. The one paragraph on the USCJ’s website devoted to conversion only addressed those about to commit the “horrible crime” of intermarriage. Nowhere did it even mention those gerim, like myself, who came to Judaism alone. I could forgive a congregation making this oversight (perhaps its institutional history had only encountered partnered converts) but it was truly reprehensible in my eyes for a national organization to hide behind the cloak of Judaism’s anti-proselytizing nature in order to not roll out the welcome mat to all those who sought shelter. Well, if Conservative Judaism didn’t want me, then I didn’t want it.
To Reform I went! I considered the two large congregations in Houston. No distinguishable difference from my eyes, so I decided to attend services at the one closest to my home. I witnessed a joyous service in an intimate chapel and listened to the sermon of a rabbi I immediately came to admire for her insight and genuine character. I went home immediately and drafted an email to her. I delayed sending it for three days because I wanted to remove all traces of overzealous enthusiasm and overeagerness from my words. She responded immediately and had the Clergy Assistant set up an appointment for the next week. I anticipated interrogation concealed slightly with pleasant demeanor. I could not have been more wrong. I fell in love with her immediately and could not wait for the course to begin. When I had to leave Houston abruptly, I was devastated in large part for my fear of never finding a rabbi I connected with as well as her. I don’t know if I still hold her up on a pedestal, but I have not been able to replace her yet.
She was gracious enough to put me in contact with a former colleague who has recently assumed the pulpit in the southern East Bay. This time I was spared the process of careful construction of an email. He was nice enough when meeting, and agreed to let me continue the process with him and his cohort. I felt so out of place in the congregation full of elderly couples who either viewed me as an abnormal specimen to examine, or as the savior to their single 50-year-old nephew’s problems. The wit espoused by the rabbi on the bimah did not resonate with me. My discomfort with the match caused me to stop the process before I went to graduate school.
I was excited to attend a graduate school with a large Jewish population in upstate New York. Maybe I could finally interact with Jews my age and make some friends. I tried attending services at Hillel, but was disgusted by the favoritism displayed toward the Conservative students. Conservative services were conducted in the worship space on the first floor. The room had beautiful stained glass, graceful wood paneling, and an impressive ark. There were always surplus copies of Siddur Sim Shalom on hand. Reform students worshipped in the basement library with a portable ark and Hillel-made siddurim. Students often had to share or worship from memory.
I became disgusted with the disparate provisions and left after a few weeks. I didn’t realize when I signed my lease that one of the oldest congregations in the nation was a mere block from my door. I was elated at the prospect of starting the conversion process, only to find that the rabbi was about to retire in January and was phasing out duties. I attended worship but did not approach his already burdened plate.
The process was overwhelming in DC. There were so many congregations and chavurahs to consider that I resorted to asking members of my graduate school cohort for recommendations in order to weed some of them out. The requirement was simple: large young adult population, easy access to public transportation, and egalitarian. One Conservative congregation was recommended over and over again, so I went to a Kabbalat Shabbat service. I loved it. I wrote to the head rabbi and he directed me to an associate. I met with the associate rabbi in the middle of summer. His questions were more intensive than the previous rabbis’. He was thorough, but distant. I was so ready to be Jewish that I decided to accept a reserved rabbi in exchange for a good congregational fit. It would only be a year anyway, right?
I couldn’t find a job. I had to move home in November. I sampled the congregations in the East Bay and didn’t find any that I liked. I know you can’t judge one entirely by its cover, but I have anecdotally found that the quantity of information provided on a congregation’s website directly corresponds to their acceptance of the process, and indirectly, their welcome mat.
When I started a contract job in San Francisco in June, I considered finding a sponsoring congregation in the city. I narrowed the search to three, and have confirmed appointments with two of the rabbis. I will wait until the other returns from Sabbatical before setting up one with him. And hopefully, finally, G-d willing, I will visit the mikvah by Shavuot 5771.
Mikvah or bust.